Monthly Archives: August 2010

Unpaid Labour and the “Big Society”

by Edd Mustill

Volunteering and the “Big Society”

There is a slogan as old as the trade union movement itself, stretching back into the forgotten mist of working-class history to the days of the first general strikes and struggles for union recognition. It went something like, A Fair Day’s Pay For A Fair Day’s Work. Perhaps if the Coalition Government gets its way, the unions will have to replace this slogan with the demand, Any Pay At All For A Fair Day’s Work.

Spreading rapidly, and with no apparent cure, is the idea that not paying someone for doing a job is perfectly acceptable. Summer internships have long been the staple diet of many a student and graduate, but now they are being used simply to cut labour costs. Interns Anonymous is a great website for stories in this area. Companies advertise jobs with fixed hours and responsibilities as “unpaid positions.” Recently an IPPR report described this sort of behaviour as “almost certainly” breaking minmum wage legislation. This is by no means a phenomenon restricted to higher-paying graduate professions, as all sorts of people are now expected to take on unpaid “experience” before being considered for a salaried position. Often called “volunteer” positions, they are nothing of the sort. They are the only choice.

And the plague is spreading to the public sector too. As well as Southampton Council’s plans to replace paid library staff with volunteers, Suffolk also appears to be getting in on the action. From such small acorns will grow the mighty oak of David Cameron’s “Big Society.” This much we know.

Volunteering and the destruction of the welfare state

There are some services that the voluntary sector cannot provide. Fire station closures cannot be mitigated by appeals to communities to club together, buy a fire engine, and answer emergency calls in their area. These are the services that will merely be gutted. Many others weill see the responsibility for their provision turned over to the “Third sector” from the state.

It is unlikely at this point that anyone other than a few ideologues are aiming for a pre-Edwardian system where welfare and education would be entirely in the hands of churches and philanthropists. But any change in the material reality will change what it is acceptable to propose. No-one at the moment can argue openly for the complete destruction of the NHS, for example, but what about after five more years of cutting away at it, at both the organisation and the idea of a national health service? No-one can argue for the abolition of state education, but what about after five more years of allowing religious groups and businesses to set up their own schools?


Volunteering and the destruction of the trade union movement

Large scale volunteering will contribute to the further destruction of the skill-base of Britain’s economy, not to mention bring in more “flexibility” in the labour market. This will serve to further reduce the influence of unions. Volunteer work is more casual than paid work, and is less likely to have to comply with union-negotiated agreements. Anyone who takes up a volunteering position in the coming years will have to give serious thought to whether they will be undermining someone else’s working conditions by their actions.

In the case of interns, Tanya de Grunwald of GraduateFog has correctly observed that “The law seems to be on their side, but their position is too weak to allow them to claim their rights.” Those working on “Big Society” projects may soon find themselves in a similar position. Unions will have to wake up and meet this challenge. To do this, they will first have to open their membership to people who are not earning and therefore cannot pay full dues. They will have to be prepared for solidarity action in workplaces with mixed paid and unpaid workforces, and go on the offensive to counter the “levelling down” of terms and conditions with a “levelling up.”

From a welfare state to a volunteer state?

Is there still a danger that we could be taking the “Big Society” rhetoric too seriously? After all, volunteer organisations themselves rely on government funding, and are therefore not being spared from the cuts. We can see from the plans for things like the National Citizen Service that Big Society schemes will not be independent from goverment. Cameron himself has described the programme as “a kind of non-military national service.” The biggest voice in the Big Society will be that of the government. It is tempting to see the whole thing as a cover for wage repression in the public sector. Time will soon tell if it is something more transformative and damaging than this.

But whatever happens, it looks like the Quest for the Holy Grail of Paid Work will get ever more difficult for the foreseeable future.

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A Social-Democratic Rose by any Other Name.

by Anne Archist

It’s a lamentable but long-standing fact that the public will generally lend more support, credibility and attention to a group that has a very straightforward name. The Campaign for Free Education, Stop the War Coalition, and Defend Council Housing are examples of organisations that have taken this principle on board. The General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union are an organisation that didn’t cotton on, even when they changed their name to just ‘GMB’ – apparently not an initialism, since they seem wary of telling anyone what it actually stands for.

A clear and concise name will give better access to the media (the English Collective of Prostitutes will undoubtedly be asked for comment before the hypothetical United Front Representing Proletarians In Sex Trades by most journalists) and grab the attention of the public. A well-chosen name can also be used to differentiate you from similar groups. Spot the odd one out: the Socialist Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Equality Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party.

It was precisely this that formed the fundamental concern of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky when the issue of party names arose. In the Preface to the 1888 English translation of the Communist Manifesto, Engels writes:

“[W]e could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto. By Socialists, in 1847, were understood… in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the ‘educated’ classes for support. Whatever portion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of a total social change, that portion then called itself Communist… Thus, Socialism was, in 1847, a middle-class movement, Communism, a working-class movement… And as our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself’, there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take.”

Engels’ explanation is that the word ‘Communist’ was chosen to avoid confusion with those who were commonly called Socialists but who did not look to working-class self-emancipation and frequently did not acknowledge the class struggle at all.

In the April Theses, Lenin puts forward three points for immediate action in light of the developments of early 1917. One was “immediate convocation of a Party congress”, the second was “Alteration of the Party Programme”, and the third was “Change of the Party’s name”. On this third point, Lenin writes: “Instead of “Social-Democracy”, whose official leaders throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie (the “defencists” and the vacillating “Kautskyites”), we must call ourselves the Communist Party.”

Furthermore, in a Draft Platform for the Proletarian Party, also written in 1917, Lenin reiterates that “We must call ourselves the Communist Party—just as Marx and Engels called themselves”, because “we shall aid and abet that deception if we retain the old and out-of-date Party name, which is as decayed as the Second International”. The deception Lenin speaks of here is the substitution of the short-term ‘Social-Democratic’ goals (a socialist economy and democratic state) with long-term Communist goals (a communist economy and no state). Almost certainly the objective factor in Lenin’s development of the party here is the Provisional Government, which represented Social-Democratic aspirations (at best), and which it was necessary to make propaganda against in order to prevent capitulation to the cabinet that was attempting to sell the revolution short.

Trotsky and contemporaries later resurrected Lenin’s concern over being confused with reactionary leaders. The Manifesto of the Comintern includes the line “Sweeping aside the half-heartedness, lies and corruption of the outlived official Socialist parties, we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations…”

The specific concern here is the inadequate internationalism expressed by the “official Socialist parties” in their attitudes towards the war, etc; the Invitation to the First World Congress states: “During the war and the revolution it became conclusively clear not only that the old socialist and social-democratic parties, and with them the Second International, had become completely bankrupt…”

The same document includes a section on “The Question of Organization and Name of the Party” that further states: “Marx and Engels had already found the name ‘social-democrat’ theoretically incorrect. The shameful collapse of the social-democratic ‘International’ also makes a break on this point necessary.” Of the 39 groups invited to participate, 12 are ‘Communist’, a handful are ‘Social-Democratic’, and a handful are ‘Socialist’ , parties whereas the rest use none of these terms (eg. IWW), are not referred to by name or are invited only in terms of their “left elements”, “the left wing” or “the revolutionary elements”.

The thread running throughout Engels, Lenin and the Comintern’s repudiation of the terms ‘Socialist’ and ‘Social-Democratic’, then, is the danger of being confused with other tendencies that call themselves by the same name. It is presumably in light of this that, now operating within a different recent history, the Trotskyist Left largely fell back to the term ‘Socialist’ as a visible indicator of their break with the official Communist parties while ‘anti-revisionist’ parties continued to call themselves ‘Communist’. It is generally true that ‘Socialist’ will get a foot in the door where ‘Communist’ might get an epithet in the face. Inaccurate and ultimately misleading though it may be, it at least gives a better idea of the principles we adhere to than would any alignment with the legacy of “official” ‘Marxist-Leninism’ as practiced by Stalin, Mao, Castro, etc. On the other hand, Anarchist-Communists have managed to bypass this difficulty to some extent precisely because Anarchist-Communist sounds to many like a paradox, and “contradictions” like this tend to invite paralysis and confusion rather than inflammation.

Existing in a period of relatively low class consciousness as we do, ‘Socialist’ should suffice for now. There is little working-class memory of the betrayals of the second international, and even scanter condemnation of them. A concern that we who call ourselves ‘Socialist’ might want to grapple with, however – when the time comes that “We must call ourselves the Communist Party—just as Marx and Engels called themselves”, will this option be open to us? Or, perhaps more likely, will we have to write “we shall aid and abet that deception [that we stand in the tradition of Stalinism] if we retain the old and out-of-date Party name, which is as decayed as the Third International”?

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The menu is not the meal

By John Moynes

The idea of dividing politics into a left wing and right wing is often criticised. And rightly so, as it fails to accurately describe the spectrum of political opinions. However I believe that the real problem with thinking in terms of “left” and “right” is that it causes stupidity, and damages politics.

Over the years many Irish commentators have bemoaned our lack of a traditional European left/right divide in our social cleavage. Right up to this year’s British elections people who consider themselves intelligent used to say that the Brits had it better because they had a choice between “the” left and “the” right. As if there is at all times, and to all questions, one left wing and one right wing answer.

As an example, consider a rural community that lacks a school bus. One left wing solution would be a state funded bus. Another would be a community cooperative service. The right wing could suggest home schooling, or a private company stepping in to provide the transport. Other solutions, such as devolved schooling through distance learning could be offered by either side. And yet many people still worship at the altar of the two party, left/right system.

And it gets worse inside political movements.

I’ve long ago lost track of the number of speeches I’ve heard where the phrase “left wing” is used as if it has a precise meaning. The speaker will insist that we (and this could mean the party, the country, Europe, or whatever you’re having yourself) need to move to the left. A demand will be made for more left wing policies. A table will get thumped. We’ll be reminded that the left has a long and noble history. Opponents will be dismissed as being right wing. The word left will get aired another few times. Left. Then there will be applause.

The converse occurs on the other side too. While they don’t tend to praise themselves for being “right” too many of them seem to think that dismissing us as “lefties” constitutes an argument. And that throwing in a quick reference to Stalin scores a home run.

The problem with all this of course is that it ignores both policy and the electorate. You’d think that these would be important, but they seem to be too complicated for some folk.

For a start the left/right illusion masks the nature of parties. For years I’ve heard people describe the Liberal Democrats as being on the left. This seems to be largely because they don’t hate minorites, or believe that the poor need to be punished. Hopefully this error will be among the many victims of the British budget.

It also creates a false expectation of what can practically be achieved. Some parties on the left believe that the market is fundamentally evil and needs to be abolished. Some believe that the wealth creating power of the market should be harnessed, but controlled by responsible legislation, and that the fruits of this market should be redistributed fairly. These two positions cannot be reconciled. There can be no compromise between two parties on either side of this split. And yet people on both sides still call for “left unity” as if an absence of Thatcherism is enough to sustain a program for government.

And finally, banging on about “the left” damages some of our campaigns. Many of us have pushed, over the years, for progress on issues like gay rights, equality of the sexes, and anti-racist campaigns.  We may have reached our position on these issues from our egalitarian “left wing” beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that these questions belong to the left. It doesn’t mean that we should complain about other parties “stealing our clothes”. If right wing parties want to grow up and treat adults as adults then we should welcome them as allies, and not sulk.

And we must remember that every time we publicly equate equality with the left we give some people an excuse to dismiss the idea entirely, rather than engage with the issue. All this does is delay victory.

We must remember that we are in politics because we want to change society for the better. We’re not here to see one team beat another, we have sports for that. And in sport I support one team in orange, and one in blue. I keep my politics as far from those colours as possible.

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Are Cuts REALLY Necessary?

I wasn’t originally going to post this here, but then I was informed that it was rejected by the opinion pages I wrote it for after they had already published several of my articles – this follows a change of editorial staff. So, with that in mind, I thought it would be better that it gets published somewhere rather than gathering dust. It’s written for a more mainstream audience than most of my posts on this blog, but hopefully people will find it of some use. I should be able to quote sources if anyone would like me to back up the numbers.

by Anne Archist

There is not, in fact, a consensus that the current programme of cuts is necessary. Dissenters include mainstream groups like the Green Party, the public-sector union Unison, and soft-left think tank Compass alongside the more usual suspects such as Red Pepper magazine and socialist organisations too numerous to list. Some have gone so far as to suggest that no cuts whatsoever are economically necessary; I’m talking about Compass, contrary to expectations, as most socialist groups are championing cuts in defence spending at the least. The case against cuts, then, deserves a closer look than the media are currently willing to give it.

Let’s stick to round numbers and call the deficit 170 billion (it’s actually 167); just to be clear, ‘deficit’ means that the state is paying out 170 billion more than it’s receiving in tax money – don’t confuse this with national debt, which is also taking up a lot of column-inches at the moment. That means we’re borrowing 170 billion a year (although it’s worth noting that about 75% of our debt is internal – from UK institutions, not abroad). Even leading economists are clear that there’s no reason the gap has to be closed immediately, but let’s humour the right wing – let’s see if we can demolish the deficit without widening inequality and aggravating the poverty endemic in our society.

How about we start by collecting the 120 billion in tax money that’s avoided, evaded, or written off? Let’s follow that up by a hefty 40 billion garnered by returning corporation tax to their pre-1997 levels, introducing the fabled ‘robin hood’ financial transactions tax, and making the bankers’ bonus tax permanent. The last 10 billion can be closed using a combination of progressive changes to capital gains tax that would bring it into line with income tax rates, a vacant property tax, and the abolition of tax exile status for those not genuinely living and paying tax elsewhere. That’s 170 billion raised in taxes, without a single cut.

Let’s, for the sake of rhetorical flourish, stick in 10 billion of cuts. Let’s not direct them at public sector workers or services, though. Let’s direct them at trident, the ID cards and associated schemes, and money-saving through renationalising PFI hospitals. What to do with the 10 billion, you ask? Well, the abolition of tuition fees would be nice (about 6 billion), and those people clamping down on tax evasion have to come from somewhere (1 billion = 40,000 public sector median wages). There is a whole raft of other less substantial adjustments and cost-cutting measures that wouldn’t hurt anyone except the obscenely rich, offering opportunities to further tackle poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, etc. Consider that as “optional” to my plan.

So, to recap, we’ve managed to close the deficit without cuts or regressive measures like VAT hikes, and have swapped trident and the database state for free education. Of course this is just one plan, and that’s my whole point – there are alternatives. “We have no choice” is a good way of shutting down debate, but it simply isn’t true. The scope, timing, and targeting of these cuts is political and ideological. Don’t just take my word for it, read Unison’s Alternative Budget, Red Pepper’s Countering The Cuts Myths, or Compass’ In Place Of Cuts.

This would be a lot to ask of any of the major parties in the current (hysterical) political climate, but I’d actually consider this a very restrained programme in the grand scheme of things. It keeps a relaxed level of tax on the rich and business, and doesn’t even touch higher-level income tax or NI contributions, which together would yield nearly 30 billion. In reply to previous critics of my articles, I won’t shy from admitting that I have no personal affection for capitalism; on the other hand this programme doesn’t take any steps whatsoever that could convincingly be described as socialist, such as genuinely “raiding” accumulated wealth (they’ve hesitantly dipped into this in France for about half a decade) or capping public sector wages (some earn as high as 1.5 million per annum).

And yet, for some reason, I won’t be holding my breath for a call from George Osborne.

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The Nature of the Stalinist USSR

by nineteensixtyseven

The debate about the nature of Stalinism and the USSR is one which still takes place regularly on the Left. This is not surprising because in my experience I believe Stalinism has set back the cause of socialism by lightyears, associating the word in the consciousness of many with unbridled state power and unrivalled terror. Whilst the left-liberal intelligentsia in the West was ingratiating itself with Stalin- the Webbs, Louis Fischer, Henri Barbusse, and even Paul Sweezy for a time- theorists such as Leon Trotsky, Bruno Rizzi and others were engaged in a critical discourse on the nature of Soviet development.  I wish to discuss one particular essay, Trotsky’s 1935 work The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and analyse how it casts light on some wider issues of Marxist theory.

Trotsky writes that:

‘There is no doubt that the USSR today bears very little resemblance to that type of Soviet republic that Lenin depicted in 1917 (no permanent bureaucracy or permanent army, the right of recalling all elected officials at any time and the active control over them by the masses “regardless of who the individual may be,” etc.). The domination of the bureaucracy over the country, as well as Stalin’s domination over the bureaucracy, have well-nigh attained their absolute consummation.’

Yet despite this:

‘At the same time, we established the fact that despite monstrous bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet state still remains the historical instrument of the working class insofar as it assures the development of economy and culture on the basis of nationalized means of production and, by virtue of this, prepares the conditions for a genuine emancipation of the toilers through the liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality.’

Trotsky, here and elsewhere, appears to be equating the concept of a workers’ state with nationalisation of the means of production with the potentiality for Socialism, conditional on the ‘liquidation of the bureaucracy and of social inequality.’  Later he writes, ‘Progress towards socialism is inseparable from that state power that is desirous of socialism or that is constrained to desire it.’  This informs his conclusion that the USSR is a form of ‘Soviet Bonapartism’ because the State, although controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy- ‘degenerated’- is based upon the new form of property relations established by the proletarian revolution of October 1917.

Let us look at this concept of Bonapartism.  In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, from which the term derives, Marx writes:

‘As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte feels it to be his task to safeguard “bourgeois order.” But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily.’

The Bonapartist state, therefore, is characterised by a certain independence from social classes whilst at the same time ruling in the interests of a particular class.  For Marx, because ‘state power is not suspended in the air’,  Napoleon I was ruling in the interests of the reactionary small peasant and thus acted as the upholder of the bourgeois property relations established by the first phase of the French Revolution in 1789.  Indeed, Gramsci’s similar concept of Caesarism talks about the elevation of a ‘great’ individual to a position of arbitration over warring classes, and Trotsky writes of Bonapartism ‘raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order.’

In this understanding of Bonapartism, it is easy to see, therefore, why Trotsky holds that despite the relative autonomy and domination of the bureaucracy, the USSR could be seen in the 1930s as a workers’ state because the bureaucracy is or can be made to be ruling in the interests of the working-class.  I would like, however, to draw what I believe to be an important distinction between Bonapartism established on the basis of Soviet-style nationalisation of the means of production and Bonapartism elevated on the base of capitalist property relations.

In his challenge to the Sonderweg (‘special path’) narrative in German history and conceptualisation of ‘bourgeois revolution’, the Marxist historian David Blackbourn draws a distinction between the changes in the mode of production from feudalism to capitalism on the one hand, and the establishment of bourgeois democracy on the other; in other words, between the economic base and the political superstructure.  He does this to argue that despite the predominance of feudal elements in the upper echelons of the Kaiserreich right up until 1914, Germany was unambiguously a capitalist economy so that it had no ‘special path’ which could account for the horrors of Nazism; and that, therefore, those horrors are not inconsistent with the development of bourgeois capitalism.  This argument was to counter historians such as Arno J Meyer whose The Persistence of the Old Regime was unclear on these points, and those historians whose understanding of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ conflated a change in the mode of production and the establishment of bourgeois democracy.  Of course, the two are often part of the same revolutionary process, and the capture of state power is often a prerequisite for the establishment of capitalist social relations (as in France) but, as the example of Germany shows, a theoretical difference can and must be drawn.

Trotsky and all good Marxists are of course aware of this distinction and indeed the notion of Bonapartism is predicated on the relative independence of the state apparatus.  Nevertheless, the basis of the distinction between the bourgeoisie as the ruling class and the bourgeoisie as the class in charge of the state apparatus rests upon the assumption that the bourgeoisie derive their power not, in the final analysis, from their direct agency as a class over the levers of state power but from their private ownership of the means of production and the concomitant social, economic and political power which stems from this fact.  Thus, despite the rule of the Kaiser, of Napoleon III, of Benito Mussolini etc, the bourgeoisie- the capitalist class- were the ruling class of their respective country.

In the USSR, however, it is by no means clear that this distinction can be made between the ruling class and the class who rule in the sense of controlling the state apparatus.  When a small group led by the Romanian Trotskyist David Korner (Barta) argued, consistent with Trotsky’s position, that ‘the USSR is a state which is based on the property relations created by the proletarian revolution and which is led by a workers’ bureaucracy in the interests of new privileged strata’, this distinction is made implicitly.  To what extent, however, can the working-class be considered the ruling class and the USSR consider a workers’ state, if the working-class have neither control of the means of production (which is controlled by the State) nor any direct political agency over that State?

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

‘The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.’

and

‘We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.’

Tony Cliff makes this point well in Trotskyism After Trotsky although I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion to which this step of his argument ultimately contributes (that the USSR was ‘state capitalist’).  Trotsky himself defined the parameters within which the USSR could be considered a workers’ state in 1931 in terms of whether ‘the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of submitting the bureaucracy to it, or reviving the party again and of mending the regime of the dictatorship, without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform’.  This view which still retains a notion of potentiality and implicitly admits that the USSR is not a workers’ state.

Trotsky elsewhere draws a distinction between whether or not the working class require reform or revolution to change the USSR but this is unconvincing: through which avenues might this reform be carried out in the bureaucratised and Stalinised state and party apparatus?  In materialist terms, the concept of the degenerated workers’ state to which Trotsky subscribed is based on a metaphysical ‘proletarian kernel’ in the essence of the USSR which has no outward manifestation, only the potential for expression.  To hold, therefore, that the USSR remains a workers’ state is to me a form of scholasticism.  Thus, if the USSR is a form of Bonapartism, the state apparatus elevated itself so far above the working class that it snapped the gilded thread which under capitalist Bonapartism connects the state to the bourgeoisie.  In Isaac Deutscher’s elegant prose:

‘Thus the feverish economic expansion, the general unsettlement which accompanied it, the eclipse of social awareness in the masses, and the emaciation of their political will formed the background to the development by which the rule of a single faction now became the rule of a single leader.  The sheer multiplicity of the conflicts between the classes and within each class, conflicts which society itself was unable to resolve, called for constant arbitrament, which could come only from the very pinnacle of power.  The greater the unsettlement, the flux, and the chaos down below the more stable and fixed that pinnacle had to be.  The more enfeebled and devoid of will all social forces were, the more stronger and more wilful grew the arbitrator; and the more powerful he became the more impotent they were bound to remain.’

This discussions begs a major question which we must consider at another time: whether or not the bureaucracy itself constituted a ‘ruling class’ as Cliff and the International Socialist tradition would hold in their theory of ‘state capitalism’ or, following Rizzi, Max Schachtman and James Burnham would hold in terms of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.  The latter view has some strength if we remember that it is not only capitalism, but all preceding modes of production (such as feudalism) had ruling classes.  Why, then, could a ruling class not establish itself on the basis of state-owned property?

Trotsky concluded in 1935 that:

‘Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other. But it is precisely at this point, as we have already seen, that the historical analogy runs up against its limits. Napoleon’s downfall did not, of course, leave untouched the relations between the classes; but in its essence the social pyramid of France retained its bourgeois character. The inevitable collapse of Stalinist Bonapartism would immediately call into question the character of the USSR as a workers’ state. A socialist economy cannot be constructed without a socialist power. The fate of the USSR as a socialist state depends upon that political regime that will arise to replace Stalinist Bonapartism. Only the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat can regenerate the Soviet system, if it is again able to mobilize around itself the toilers of the city and the village.’

The question for a later discussion, therefore, is which way the USSR rolled and what sort of characterisation can we make of it?

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The Strange Death of the Liberal Democrats?

by Edd Mustill

This weekend’s half-story about former LibDem leader Charles Kennedy possibly defecting to Labour turned out to be a damp squib, but with the LibDems slumping to 12-15% in the polls, it does raise questions about the future of the third party. Clegg has put the slump down to the unpopularity of governing parties generally, but this can’t account for the Tories’ healthy lead over Labour in the same polls. The Liberals are feeling the pressure of being an essentially useless political force, a mere appendage of the Conservative Party. This certainly is how they are coming to be regarded in Sheffield, where Clegg has been known to avoid the wrathful public recently.

Historical precedent tells us that coalition government means splits. After the First World War, it was the question of continued participation in a coalition government that split the Liberal Party in 1918. Lloyd George remained a Liberal Prime Minister in a government of Tories. During the Great Depression, Ramsay MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party for heading a national government made up mostly of Tories in 1931.

But history might not be a good teacher here. Despite the grumblings of Kennedy and others, there has been no attempt to split the party or to force the leadership to reverse its decision. There has been no organised resistance to the ConDem coalition from within the Liberals’ ranks. Only, if the Labour Party are to be believed(!), a stream of bedraggled and disillusioned liberals turning to the wilted red rose of social democracy for consolation.

Clegg has painted himself into a corner. Although a Tory-LibDem coalition was always the most likely in the absence of a majority, I was surprised at the extent to which Clegg tied his party to the Tories’ agenda, getting almost nothing in return. It speaks volumes about his own political beliefs. I assumed he would collapse the government on an issue of his own choosing, then attempt to fight a new general election on that issue and profit from it. Instead he signed up to an agenda that he obviously believes in, for a full five years.

And with party President Simon Hughes apparently ruling out any electoral pact with the Tories, the LibDems will have to fight for every seat. No-one will fall for their election strategy, to be a Nicer Version of the Tories, after seeing five years of Liberals voting through Tory laws and Tory cuts. Even if Labour remains in its current shambolic state, the LibDems will lose ground in local elections all over the North of England. Their MPs will become increasingly aware that there are not many safe yellow seats.

In this context, different sections of the party might come to the conclusion that only a split will keep them from disappearing into irrelevance. Clegg and his closest allies might stand as Liberal Conservatives with no “official” Conservative going up against them, or alternatively some of the more centrist members could stand as Social Liberals, Real Liberals or some other label.

If a split does come, it will be for reasons of self-preservation and not of principle, although any argument will undoubtedly be dressed up in terms of who are the real guardians of “liberal values.” But then, what else would we expect from the Yellow-bellies?

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When is a Straight White Male not a Straight White Male?

by Anne Archist

I won’t pretend that there’s any great political insight contained in this post. It’s just something that’s been playing on loop in my head lately, and I thought I’d try to banish it by putting pen to paper (fingertip to keyboard?). I was reminded of the issue by two experiences I had recently. One was a line I read in Bell Hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman?, in which Hooks refers to socialist-feminist Zillah Eisenstein as “white”, and Eisenstein has called herself “white” as well. I don’t know whether Eisenstein is in fact of discernable Jewish heritage, but the name is Jewish. Perhaps for all intents and purposes this branch of the family is purely Anglo-Saxon, having descended from an adopted child, or something similar; it seems likely, however, that both are using the term “white” to describe Jewish heritage.

This raised the question of quite what it means to be white for Hooks (and indeed Eisenstein) – although she consistently differentiates black women from black men and white women, calling it “racist” to talk of white women as if they represent all women and black men as if they represent all blacks, she also consistently fails to bring out alternative experiences in her writing. She doesn’t talk about the differentiated experiences of black lesbians from straight black women, or of disabled white men from able-bodied white men, etc. In creating a “social heirarchy” based only on sex and race, she effectively denies the existence of other identities and other forms of oppression, which is ironically the very charge she levels at most academics – that they overlook the identity and the specific oppression of black women.

If black women can’t be lumped together with black men, then ethnic Jews surely can’t be lumped together with Anglo-Saxons? For millennia Jewish peoples have been physically attacked, marginalised, excluded, exploited, persecuted; regions have even been ethnically cleansed through coerced migration or extermination. Anglo-Saxons have no comparable experience whatsoever – in fact, the Anglo-Saxon experience is largely one of enacting all the above, not of enduring them. To treat both groups as ethnically, and therefore socially, homogeneous or comparable is utterly misleading. None of this is to deny that (most) Jewish people are in fact white-skinned, obviously. And none of it is an attempt to brand Hooks as a racist or hypocrite – I’m merely observing a deficiency in her analysis.

The second experience was watching a BBC documentary in which an interviewer asked “how do people know you’re a traveller?”. Again, Irish travellers are a distinct ethnic group, and one that have been subjected to oppression and exclusion for centuries – yet they are white-skinned. Even more so than Jews, they can “pass” as Anglo-Saxon in the right context. It would be naive to assume that ethnic groups like this don’t develop their own patterns of behaviour, speech, dress, etc that would mark them out to an educated observer, but most people don’t look close enough, and those traits are by no means necessarily pronounced enough to clearly distinguish them from all other ethnic and cultural groups.

And that’s the thing that I’ve been thinking about – we normally think of race, gender, etc as visible characteristics that mark us out for oppression. There has been some research into, and discussion of, the difference in attitudes we take towards people when we can’t rely on visual cues or gender/race-specific names and other features on which to discriminate. Much of this has focused on ‘blind’ job applications where no picture, name, ethnic information, gender information, etc is provided. Apparently marginalised groups perform better in these circumstances. What interests me is the case of individuals that “pass” as belonging to dominant groups at first glance. This first came into my head when I was walking through a predominantly black and asian part of London with three friends. “I bet we look like a bunch of white kids out of our depth”, I thought to myself – in reality, one of us was of Roma descent, one of Irish traveller descent, and one of Jewish descent. The fourth member of the group was indeed thoroughly Anglo-Saxon.

I’ve also sat through embarrassingly oblivious rants at political meetings about how the room is “filled with white people”, while I sit among gypsies, Jews, light-skinned Arabs & Persians, Hispanics/Latinos (as they would be called in America, I realise the terms are less common here), perhaps more that I’ve forgotten. That these people all have light skin is doubtless a political issue in and of itself, but to represent this mélange as an oppressor-group or a culturally and ethnically unified body is to miss the point that ethnicity is not reducible simply to two or three key racial categories, and that prejudice and disadvantage confront many lighter-skinned non-Anglo-Saxon people too. Racism does not operate a “you must be at least this dark to ride” policy.

This doesn’t just apply with regard to race – consider transgendered or non-heterosexual people who happily “pass” as heteronormative. I know transgendered people who (sometimes, at least) outwardly present as completely comfortable in their assigned gender or who “pass” easily post-transition, homosexuals (and many more bisexuals and queers) who present for the most part as straight, etc. I write about these things mostly out of curiosity value and to raise some questions that maybe people hadn’t considered before.

I also want to suggest that there might be an element of optimism here – without meaning to play down the important criticisms of the left insofar as it under-represents or poorly engages with marginalised communities, perhaps our political movements are more representative and less “straight” than they appear at first glance. Perhaps that “Straight White Male” sitting next to you in the meeting or marching next to you on the demo is not an exclusively heterosexual Anglo-Saxon cis-gendered male-bodied person. Perhaps they are bisexual or queer, genderfluid or intersex, Roma or Jewish. Perhaps they too have a heritage of ethnic cleansing, patriarchal persecution or eugenic victimisation.

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Action Against the Cuts: Producing a Strategy of Struggle (Part II)

by Patrick

Last time I looked at the political project of the ConDem coalition. Now, I examine possible strategies for struggles against it.

So we know that austerity is not merely a reduction in living standards – it is a transformation of society. We can’t merely ‘oppose’ budget cuts, calling on politicians to tax the rich or cut trident, or pull out of Iraq to save money – they will ignore us. We need to cut against the very logic of the austerity project. To do this, we will need to think carefully.

The first thing to point out is that the state is not a profit-making company – it is perfectly willing to accept short term chaos in the form of strikes, demonstrations, and even occupations, as long as it can impose its austerity project eventually. The state has proven that it can borrow money through a crisis, and it can also live on borrowed political legitimacy: governments seek to push through difficult policies just after elections, in the hope that they will be popular again within five years.

Opposition to the austerity project must not rely solely on short term mass action – even if half the population of London was out on the streets tomorrow (which is unlikely), or even if half the workers in the country went on strike the next day (see: Greece), the project would roll on. People would lose interest, as they already have started doing in Greece (turnout at demonstrations and general strikes reached its peak in May). The state is strong – it can push through policies even against massive protests.

However, the austerity project does have weak points, chinks in its armor.

If the budget cuts and austerity are going to work, private sector growth must closely follow them, otherwise consumer spending drops, and we dip into a deflationary spiral of prolonged recession – capitalists hate that shit. If the project is going to function, we all must be working very hard, and spending all our money (and borrowing to fuel our consumer spending) in five years time. So the project will force us to work very hard, by eroding conditions, smashing unions, increasing hours, and it will force us to spend all our money by raising living costs through the VAT rise, some inflation, and forcing people to get their services from private companies.

However, in the meantime, unemployment will be very, very high. There are already 2.5 million unemployed in this country, and that will probably rise to over three million in the next few years – a lot of people will have a lot of spare time, and no money. The millions without work will need to find a way to live on rapidly declining benefits. The logical choice is – mutual aid, activity in the informal economy, the creation and use of autonomous spaces – squatting, skipping, stealing and so on.

We as activists, as political people, as trade unionists, unemployed or students or whatever – we can determine the character of these spaces, of these extra-legal economic practices, of these networks of mutual aid.

They could be based around organized crime, they could be based around reactionary charities, they could be a temporary, disempowering, humiliating purgatory.

Or, they could be something radical – they could provide space for discussion, for creativity, for critical thought and action in society. They could provide the tool we need to jam into the cracks forming in the austerity project. In a few years, they could be strong enough and good enough to provide a better lifestyle than a disciplined, disempowering job in the new private services, or in the new industries that have sprung up off the back of low wages.

These new spaces, new networks, and new economic practices could play a crucial role in defeating the project of austerity. Not because everyone magically will refuse to be complicit in the project, but because people will be rejected from the mainstream economy, thrown out of work and out of society by austerity. Conversely, the austerity project assumes and requires that these people will be terrified into submission, that they will rush to re-enter employment under worse conditions and with worse pay. If these people do not return, or if they seek to return on their own terms, unemployment stays high, consumer spending does not recover, tax reciepts continue to fall, the deflationary spiral happens, another crisis is precipitated.

This is dialectics right here – an internal contradiction produced by economic and political circumstances, simultaneously producing a group of people as an expression of this contradiction. Those people create a new synthesis.

These practices – mutual aid, the creation of autonomous spaces, the informal economy – are not a magic key to defeating the cuts, rather, they are a prerequisite to a real social change. Collective struggle cannot occur without community, it cannot occur without mutual communication and common life. It is only through mutual communication and collective life that we will formulate a strategy to foil the austerity project. Tom Denning (writing at the new left project) points out that we might take the example of the anti-poll tax movement, however, a programme of opposition to the cuts will be far more complex than a mass non-payment campaign. We need space (physical and ideological) to try out new modes of struggle, new actions and tactics to foil the new societal projects and conditions being imposed upon us.

Don’t get me wrong – strikes are still necessary, demonstrations can still be useful and some unions can be democratized and moved to the left. However, we need to acknowledge that these tactics less effective than they used to be – we need something new as well.

I’ve tried to lay down some basic first steps for formulating a strategy of struggle, but the details will have to be worked out as we go along. Maybe we will go the way of the Italian autonomia and start stealing from supermarkets, maybe we will find that blocking the roads of Westminster is highly effective, maybe we will simply riot. However, we cannot uncritically adopt any one strategy over others: if we focus entirely on building a ‘united front’ of left groups and existing groups of organised workers, our fate will be sealed.

Undoubtedly, a programme for transforming society will be necessary, but without a party to put it into practice, without a movement to guide that party, and without communities of struggle to form that movement, we will fail. Even though we may be very close to game over, we have to start from level one.

Part III will look past the prerequisites for struggle, towards a programme for transforming society.

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Action against the cuts: ‘Resistance’ or actual political strategy? (Part I)

By Patrick

Richard Seymour has initiated a discussion on the New Left Project about the cuts and how to oppose them. Unsurprisingly, he calls for ‘a multi-party, multi-organization, trade union-based united front, the sole criterion for unity within it being agreement on the objective of preventing the cuts and advancing alternatives.’ He doesn’t say exactly what this united front will do, or how it will ‘obstruct the cuts agenda [and] also create a crisis for the government’. I assume the tactics he envisions are those espoused by the large anti-cuts campaigns like Right to Work, and the Coalition of Resistance: strikes, demonstrations, the occupations, and so on.

There’s been a lot of talk on the left generally about ‘resistance’ to the wave of austerity now sweeping Europe.

Riots and general strikes in Greece, huge demonstrations in Ireland, public sector strikes in Spain. The basic assumption about this ‘resistance’ is the more the better – once ‘resistance’ reaches a certain level – once the general strike is long enough, once the demonstrations are big enough, the cuts will be defeated, austerity will end, and the rich will be made to pay for the economic crisis. However, no-one ever explains exactly how this resistance will grow, and exactly how it will defeat the austerity program.

A logic of ‘resistance’, of pure anger mechanistically resulting in struggle, of a fierce fight necessarily resulting in victory, is ridiculously simplistic. Let’s look at Greece: we’ve seen a series of general strikes with more than half of workers walking out for a day. In May we saw regular demonstrations of hundreds of thousands (in a country of only 11 million), we saw riots and an attempted storming of parliament. But austerity has rolled on – the international financial markets and the IMF have forced the ruling ‘socialist’ government to adopt a harsh programme of budget cuts, and no amount of ‘resistance’ appears able to stop this.

Something is wrong with ‘resistance’ as a mode of action, something is incomplete. The crucial elements are inadequately linked together. What is needed is an understanding of the project of austerity, leading to a strategy of struggle, and a programme of transforming society.

Understanding Austerity

Many argue that the UK does not need to cut public services by 25%. Sunny Hundal argues that we should proclaim ‘the cuts won’t work!’: many social Democrats and centre left economists are saying that harsh cuts may tip the country back into recession, and maybe start a deflationary spiral in the short and medium term.

However, the Tories (ConDems, LibCons, whatever you want to call them) are not just stupid, economic illiterates who are taking Britain down an ill-conceived path to ruin, egged on by ‘bond vigilantes’ in the financial markets. They aim to slash the state whist raising regressive taxes for a reason: harsh austerity is part of a transformational project, and it’s only beginning to be revealed.

George Osborne claims that the ‘bloated’ public sector is ‘crowding out’ private enterprise, he claims that, once public spending is cut, private sector growth will accelerate, creating more jobs than were cut from the public sector.

This may actually be true – a period of mass unemployment will follow budget cuts over the next few years, wages will be driven down as people search for work anywhere they can, more people will be forced to buy services from the private sector, as public services will be crumbling, and a few years of uncertainty will discipline country’s workforce, ensuring that they prepare themselves for work in a casualised private sector – that is, long hours, few benefits, and little or no union representation.

We may find ourselves, five years hence, with a booming private economy, with growth coming from private schools, private hospitals and the security industry. This situation would be characterized by a high cost of living combined with low wages, harsh discipline in work, and a very low level of trade union membership. Everything from hospital administration to state schools will be run (if not funded) by the private sector, and though unemployment may be quite low, every job will be a McDonald’s job – disciplined, regularized, with crap conditions and no creative outlet whatsoever. If you want to see this future, talk to someone who works in one of the academy schools run by a major bank or a religious nut.

Once the project is complete – it’s game over – unions will be even weaker than today, schools will have the last bits of progressive education eradicated, the NHS will be practically privatised, students will have no time for political action amidst their two-year business degrees, and workers will have no energy for political action amidst casualisation, overtime, and low wages. Many poor and dispossessed people will have already turned to the easy answers offered by racism and fascism.

The project of austerity is about changing the society we live in, and it does have a logic to it. Austerity, unemployment and lower standards of living translate into increased control of the private sector over services, workplaces, and people’s lives. It will allow capitalism to bounce back with a vengeance. If we are to oppose austerity, we must understand and oppose this logic.

[Coming up in Part II: Working Out a Strategy of Struggle]

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Thoughts on Social Democracy

by nineteensixtyseven

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” wrote the late Tony Judt, who died earlier this month, in his last book Ill Fares the Land. His solution to this problem, as David Herman notes in his New Statesman review, is a return to social democratic values.

Judt lamented the rise of neoliberalism, with its concomitant policies of privatisation, societal atomisation and economic proletarianisation and in 2001 attacked the ‘Third Way’ perversion of social democracy inherent in the New Labour project and other European Social Democratic parties such as the German SPD.  Paradoxically, however, he said in a New York lecture last year that “Social Democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary European politics.”  What are we to make of this paradox?

The major problem with Judt’s analysis, as Herman in fact diagnoses, is that it deals primarily in idealistic terms and notions:

“Oddly, there is too little history. Why were the 1970s the turning point in disillusionment with the state? Because of economic crisis, the beginnings of globalisation and deindustrialisation (all of which feature far too little here), and not, as Judt argues, because of a small group of Austrian intellectuals (Popper, Hayek et al) or because of the “ironic legacy” of the 1960s.”

For a materialist, ideas are a reflection of society, albeit with their own dynamic and relative autonomy, but the reception of ideas is, in the final analysis, conditional on the material situation.  Sow a seed on barren earth and it will not succeed in blossoming; sow a seed on fertile ground and the two will form a symbiosis.  As the political economy of advanced capitalism developed, social democracy still existed as an ideal but in practice it found itself struggling in a changed environment.  The ‘Third Way’ was not just the concoction of Anthony Giddens in an ivory tower at the LSE but a pragmatic adaptation of reformism to the parameters of politics and policy which had been substantially redefined by two decades of neoliberalism.  Giddens, Blair et al gave this development its idealistic and political expression.

In some ways Judt is correct that some social democratic principles about the role of the state in the economy appear to be the norm in European governance but that question can be posed in another way. Neoliberalism, even in its most extreme form, used state power to repress trade unions, force through privatisation and protect the power of the possessing class. In the abstract, therefore, a question about the role of the state in the economy which is posed in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less’ intervention or responsibility, can miss some key differences.

Yes, there is indeed a high degree of state intervention in some spheres of the economy.  Capitalism needs the state for many reasons; to act as a lender of last resort in the event of a systemic crisis of finance capital; to uphold private property rights through the law; and to turn its repressive apparatus against those who wish to fundamentally alter social relations in the sphere of production.   Could we not say, then, that what some may recognise as social democracy in Europe, could quite easily be Christian Democracy, social Liberalism, corporatism or the various other ideologies of capitalist liberal democracy?  Paul Gillespie, writing in the Irish Times, seems to think so:

“Social democrats have classically navigated between the several varieties of capitalism available in Europe by emphasising the collective merits of social protection and state regulation, even as they acknowledge that Christian Democrats and liberals can also claim their ownership.”

Judt appears to think so himself when he says there are very few politicians “who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however much they might differ as to their scope. Consequently, social democrats in today’s Europe have nothing distinctive to offer.” Indeed, the SPD-Green government was able to push through neoliberal ‘reforms’ that Helmut Kohl or Angela Merkel could never have gotten away with.  Similarly, the New Labour project accelerated many of Thatcherism’s basic tenets, attempting to cushion the blow with redistributive adornments upon an essentially neoliberal infrastructure.  Therefore, if the majority of European politicians are working within a paradigm that Judt defines as largely social democratic (which is, in reality, neoliberal) and if life is still ‘profoundly wrong’ and what is needed is not necessarily a return to the social democracy which Judt pines for (which, one may contend, is impossible) but a reinvention of the ideology of the Left for the 21st century.

One thing that has always struck me with regards to the social democracy of which Judt speaks is that when you read or listen to spokespersons of even the right-wing of the British Labour Party from the 1970s such as Roy Hattersley, they sound refreshing left-wing compared to the current crop of charlatans.  This is, of course, a very depressing reflection on our contemporary political culture.  Going back further, you even had Marxists such as Harold Laski and John Strachey occupying senior and influential positions in the British Labour movement. But they were of their time and they conducted their debates in very different circumstances.  If we accept that the nature of late 20th century capitalism has changed irrevocably then might it not be the case that the sort of mixed-market social democracy of the immediate post-war economy- buoyed as it was by the necessities post-war reconstruction, a fear of Communism in the developed countries bordering the Iron Curtain and a strong and politically powerful trade union movement- be simply too much to expect from 21st century capitalism with its weakened labour movement, financialisation and accelerated globalisation?  At this present conjuncture I believe this to be so.

The neoliberal ‘revolution’ as it happened under Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet etc occurred as a response to some quite severe contradictions within capitalism; and the neoliberal response to the crisis of the 1970s has merely engendered an infinitely more complex array of crises, as witnessed by the 2008 financial crash which can be traced back to a web of factors arising out of the last 3 decades.  A crisis of profitability in the 1970s became a crisis of low demand in the last two decades because wage repression, the solution to the former crisis, merely created a new one.  On this foundation was the web of financial speculation constructed.  It appears presently that capital has now transferred its own crisis on to the balance book of the State, with taxpayers footing the bill for this ‘sovereign debt crisis.’

Perhaps surprisingly, I believe that Merkel, Cameron et al are more realistic about the prospects for capitalism than the social democratic left in demanding harsh cuts to spending, retrenchment of services.  Indeed, the Socialist president of Greece, George Papandreou is carrying out their programme as we speak in his country.  They are resolving some of the inevitable contradictions of the market system brutally and callously so it is up to the left resist this and call for something more realistic and humane. I am afraid that a return to Keynes might not cut it; we need to be more radical.  To be sure, deficit spending to increase aggregate demand may lift the economy out of recession, thus reducing the burden on spending in the short to medium term.  However, this will only solve the current problems of growth and the deficit which are arguably epiphenomena, set to evolve into a new set of problems in the long run.

If Papandreou wants a system that “above all ensures that democracy is never subordinated to markets” and a “fair, efficient system of economic governance that balances the need for sovereignty with the complex demands of monetary union in a globalised economy” then we on the left will have to go further than demanding, for example, more regulation of the financial sector; we need to be demanding the public ownership of the means of exchange and the democratic control of credit in the economy as an alternative to the reckless conduct of a shady cartel of private bankers. If we want to stop the massive spending cuts then we need to curb the power of unelected ratings agencies and the ability of speculators to wreak havoc with whole country’s economies. If we want to prevent pensioners dying of the cold from fuel poverty then we must expropriate the multinational energy companies who are profiting from the earth’s common resources.  Gillespie is write when he says that we require “a new internationalism, another old value never more needed than in this uncertain global age.” We need a Socialist internationalism; in short, we need internationalism Socialism.

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